Are your strategic choices setting you up for success?
One of the core principles of leadership is to ensure that strategies are put into action to assist people in creating high value actions which can help the organisation deliver upon its goals. However, too often we fall into the trap of pursuing strategies which do not lead us to success, but instead lead us away from it. You may be using ‘sabotage strategies’ – without even realising it.
What is a ‘strategy’ anyway?
Strategy is often defined as “a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim”. However, to understand the true value of strategies, we need to start with an understanding of what an individual’s ‘long term or overall aim’ actually is.
Strategy which is purely based around an organisation’s purpose or mission allows the organisation to move forward, driving high performance in its areas of interest and delivering profits and growth. However, we rely on the ‘human resource’ within our business to create and deliver strategy, which often leads us away from such a pure approach. Strategy is imagined, approved and implemented by individuals, each who may have personal ‘long term or overall aims’ which can influence how the strategy – and potential strategies – are chosen and employed. When we add the fact that we rely on groups of people to negotiate between their own various positions, conscious and unconscious drivers and beliefs about what needs to be done to create the strategy for an organisation often get in the way and create sabotage strategies in the business.
Is it any wonder people struggle with the idea of ‘strategy’? What should be a simple linear relationship between outcome and the best choice of means to achieve it becomes complicated by the nature of the individuals, groups and organisations creating and enacting them.
Often we can be aware of many influences on our strategic choices. We may choose a particular strategy because it offers the best return for risk, because it has the best political chance of succeeding, because we have experience or particular competence in this area, or we have seen it work elsewhere. We may even accept a strategy we don’t like as a trade off in a negotiation to get other things which are more important to us.
The individual involved in designing the strategy can consciously sabotage it for purely personal gain, such as if they are playing politics, exercising or seeking power or have ‘hidden agendas’ that they are running. Drawing out people’s intentions and roles in developing strategy can be important in removing their bias from the end result.
I once went into an emergency meeting regarding a particular strategy, and as chair the first question I asked (going around the room) was: “How does solving this issue impact upon your bonus for this year?” What came out was interesting – several of the people in the group had conflicting goals in relation to the topic, which would have made it impossible to get an outcome. Reframing the bigger picture – and removing some of the people from the decision making process- meant that a series of valuable, high quality decisions could be made.
These are some of the conscious reasons that can impact upon strategy development. What about some of the unconscious ones?
Safety: Underneath most of our unconscious drivers is the need to feel safe. Indeed, it is often the most powerful driver of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. If it is ‘unsafe’ to challenge the bosses, if it is ‘unsafe’ to do things differently, if I perceive it is unsafe to take action, then I will struggle to do so. The culture of the workplace has a lot to do with how safe we feel. In times of uncertainty and stress, taking risks or challenging can feel very unsafe, whereas operating in the status quo can be comforting. This can have a massive bearing on the nature of strategies proposed, approved and enacted.
Social drivers: As individuals, we seek to feel significant, in control and liked or trusted. Each of us has our own ‘comfort zone’ in terms of where we feel safe and happy. If we believe that taking a particular action will make us insignificant, out of control or not liked and trusted in the eyes of the people we reference as ‘important’, then we will often become highly defensive and not take the action. From a strategy development and implementation point of view, pursuing these unconscious social needs can come before making great decisions about strategy.
For example, if I need to feel significant, I may argue away other good ideas until my idea of what should be done is accepted. It may also, for example, cause me to derail other people’s ideas so that they become less important. Conversely, if I have a need to feel trusted and liked, I might not challenge a bad idea in case the person who proposed it doesn’t like me for doing so.
Overcoming the unconscious drivers which sabotage strategy development require great self-awareness – knowing what your own personal drivers and responses are – as well as keeping the bigger picture view of the outcome and its value in mind. Having these two attributes within a team – and having them openly communicated and included in discussions – can reduce the unconscious sabotage of strategies.
When we operate through our fears or our unconscious drivers, or when we negotiate to the lowest common denominator, we are often left with strategies that work to sabotage our bigger games. They often become bloated plans which are either not properly actioned, or resisted by those who have to roll them out.
Although we can start with the best of intentions, we can often lose our way between knowing something has to be done, and finding a valuable way to do it. From my experience working in and for large organisations, there are a set of common ‘sabotage strategies’ which lead an organisation away from success. Here are some you may recognise:
The “too-many-strategies” strategy.
Leadership is about focus – having focus, and helping others have focus. Whilst there are so many different strategies that you can do, selecting and keeping the focus on the strategies that matter is critical. Often, leaders do not keep a tight enough constraint on the number of different strategies.
This can be due to ‘trade-offs’ and negotiations, as we allow or accept pet strategies from a number of sources – each by themselves which may be good for the organisation – to be accepted and run in parallel. Sometimes when people are in ‘panic mode’ they do not want to miss out on doing something that could help – so rather than prioritise, they try to do too much.
Too many strategies can lead to confusion, overlapping priorities and diffusion of resources. This makes it difficult for any of the strategies to be successfully completed, let alone be understood by those who have to perform them.
The “too many directions” strategy
Having a clear purpose – a reason ‘why’ an organisation does what it does – allows people to understand what they are contributing to and how strategies they are working on fit together. However, when there is no unified purpose behind the strategies, people often feel that they are dragged in multiple directions.
When the leadership does not have a clear purpose and mission for the organisation, the strategies proposed can seek to take the organisation where each of the leaders thinks it should go, rather than in the one unified direction. This also happens when leaders try and ‘hedge their bets’, not being absolutely clear or disciplined about staying the course of the organisation’s purpose, especially when the organisation is under stress.
This often sets up conflicting priorities and responsibilities. Too many directions can be managed through testing strategies against the organisation’s purpose, and by understanding priority and sequencing on strategic implementation.
The “keeping up with the Joneses” strategy
Just because someone else does something, doesn’t mean that you have to! Often organisations, particularly those under stress, will be reactive and simply implement strategies that they see others using. In particular, organisations copy the strategies of their competitors, thinking that they have discovered the ‘secret’ of success.
The truth is that strategies need to be uniquely developed to serve the specific outcomes that your organisation wants, and works from where your organisation currently finds itself. Whilst it can be useful to be inspired by others, or learn from what they are doing, these should only inform your strategic thinking, not direct your strategic choices.
The “Bright and Shiny Objects” strategy.
Not wanting to get left behind, leaders often rush to implement new and innovative ideas of the times, often without due consideration to the true fit or benefit of the tools to the business. By not having a cohesive strategy into which new and innovative tools can be evaluated for fit, the strategy often is ‘implement all bright and shiny things’.
The great buzz words and consultant jargon can often blind leaders into thinking they have missed something. The fear of missing out; of being seen to not know; or that they may get left behind can blind leaders into not asking great questions, and accepting such things as strategies that have to be implemented. For example, the number of board presentations I have attended where the next ‘bright and shiny thing’ is presented as a strategy in its own right is beyond count. “We will set up a twitter feed”, is presented, and accepted, without understanding that it is only a bright and shiny thing.
Great strategy can accommodate ‘bright and shiny things’ as tactical or channel elements. For example, social media can be accommodated into a customer centric engagement strategy, and internal communication strategy, or a problem-response strategy.
As things change, it is important to be aware of innovations, and be adaptive enough to take advantage of them. However, just because something is new and exciting, does not mean it is right for your organisation, right now. The ability to see how new things can fit into the strategy is important, however, simply adding new things (social media, being in the ‘cloud’, big data, CRM, and a million other buzz words) because they are new is not value adding. However, too often managers are attracted to ‘bright and shiny things’ rather than valuable and purpose driven things.
The “It worked last time” strategy
When organisations exist in a defensive mindset, they often execute what they have always done – even if it is no longer effective. This means that instead of being open to explore new and innovative strategy options, fear holds leaders to only accept what they know has been proven successful in the past. It worked before, so it must work again, right?
Actually, no. Each strategy is successful in a certain context, under certain conditions. Things change, including the customers, the competitors, the market, and even the organisation’s own capabilities. This means that strategy will need to evolve with the changes.
If leaders are stuck in a defensive mindset and only select strategies that they know have worked in the past, they may miss the benefit of proper strategy development and innovation to meet the changing needs of the circumstances.
This often shows as organisations not capitalising on measurement and review processes, and just repeating strategies without testing their appropriateness for the current circumstance. This is a sure recipe to poor performance.
The “agitation management” strategy.
When things aren’t going well, leaders can feel a sense of being out of control. It feels good to be ‘doing something’ – even if the best thing to do is to allow well considered strategies to run their course. Often, leaders respond to stress on the business by feeling compelled to act. This process of feeling like you are doing something (and therefore increasing the unconscious sensation of control) looks to everyone else like a scattergun of new actions, projects and strategies. In the end, the leader is simply passing their agitation down the organisation – this agitation management does not serve the organisation or its people, and often gets in the way of good strategy being allowed the time and space to have impact.
The ‘rabbit in the headlights’ strategy
When leaders are gripped by fear, sometimes they can act like a ‘rabbit in the headlights’. Even when things need to change, they can simply stay ‘stuck’, rooted on the spot because of fear. This fear limits the ability of the leader to accept change or risk, and often results in a continuation of what is already going on (potentially, what got the organisation into trouble in the first place). Courage is said to be feeling fear and acting anyway. This is one of the core attributes of a great leader – to be self-aware enough to recognise the fear, and smart enough to operationalise best practice actions anyway.
So what makes a successful strategy?
As we have seen, there are many sabotage strategies that we can employ for conscious and unconscious reasons. On the flipside, by being self-aware and purpose driven, we can create great strategies that empower the organisation to move forward.
A great strategy can be identified by its core properties:
- It is outcomes focused.
- It works towards serving the organisation’s purpose and mission
- It is properly articulated, built on insights
- Its impact is measurable
- It can be broken down into actionable tactics
- It is given time and resources to be properly completed
- It follows Peter Drucker’s business cycle: Plan, Perform, Measure, Review.
- It is actionable by the people – they have the skills and capacity to deliver on it.
How do your strategies measure up against these criteria?
If developing and focusing the organisation on delivering great strategies is a core function of leadership, then understanding how individuals, teams and organisations can set sabotage strategies – and how these can be overcome – is a critical part of being a leader.
Being self-aware; acting with appropriate courage; being ruthless about prioritising strategy to align with the purpose of the organisation; and understanding what makes a great or sabotaging strategy are therefore important parts of a leader’s toolkit.
What can you do to create great strategy in your business, and how can you focus priority on what matters to make the organisation step up to its bigger game?